Knives Out: Unraveling the Whodunnit
Written by Sam Gohra
Spoilers for Knives Out
Several of Agatha Christie’s most celebrated stories, be it Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None, set themselves apart by stepping outside the bounds of a conventional whodunnit narrative – there is not simply a victim, a killer, and a detective, but something more subversive at play.
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out places itself within this class immediately, with the central mystery of a death which can be nothing but a suicide, but must be more. Writer-director Johnson proceeds to unravel the whodunnit genre, playing the murder mystery straight and in reverse, deviating into drama and thriller, before coming full circle, every shift arising from his broiling, captivating cast of characters.
Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc enters the picture as an enigmatic Sherlockian presence, his jarring strikes of the piano conveying an archetypal arrogant, uncannily perceptive detective. An innate expectation of some kind of erudite Englishman is immediately dashed once Craig opens his mouth, but his credentials as a competent detective are consolidated as he cross-examines the Thrombey family. This first act functions as a gripping cross-section of a whodunnit, navigating a fluid timeline and organically constructing what is essentially one interrogation comprised of many.
At the end of this act, revelation is provided, and character and genre invert. Ana de Aramas’ Marta, previously appearing to be a maligned victim and lie-detecting plot device to be protected and made use of by Detective Blanc, is transformed into protagonist and unwitting killer. The supposed solution to the mystery is revealed two hours early, and what follows is a whodunnit in reverse – let in on Marta’s secret and sympathetically ensnared by her innocence, trauma and continued peril, the audience is locked into her point of view.
Detective Blanc becomes the antagonist, albeit well-meaning and comedic, appearing to bumble through a series of crime scenes as Marta thinks on her feet, dashing any and all clues which may lead back to her. This section of the text asks, “What if Watson was the killer in a case Sherlock was investigating?” It serves as a fun and thrilling inversion of the initial genre.
Closing this section of the text with Marta’s apparent success, a shift into drama and thriller becomes the stage for yet more character overhaul. Virtually every character in the film is transformed in the eyes of the audience at least once. Michael Shannon’s ineffectual Walt takes turns as comedic relief, brief audience surrogate as he berates his family members, and imposing villain as he seeks to blackmail Marta – quickly collapsing back into risibility as he provides her with the key to agency.
Katherine Langford’s Meg goes from Marta’s grounded and relatable friend to the instigator of looming calamity, informing the Thrombey family or her family’s tenuous immigration status. The most drastic transformations within the film, however, are those of Chris Evans’ Ransom and the ever-evolving Detective Blanc.
Chris Evans’ history as a figure of wholesome heroism immediately makes his villainy seem subversive, and Ransom is introduced as an unmitigated figure of menace. He stalks through the periphery of flashbacks. He is immediately accosted by the Thormbey hounds, which we are told are the “best judge of character.” Also, his name is Ransom.
The clues of Ransom’s villainy are so obvious they must be red herrings, and so when he sides with Marta after Harlam’s fortune is bequeathed to her – a turning point at which the genre of whodunnit is taken off the boil, drama and thriller brought to the fore – the audience accepts his transition into the role of helper and aid to the protagonist. Even when he admits his ulterior motive to helping Marta, his likeability, capability and the conventions of male-female pairing convince the audience to continually accept his transition. After all, there is no murder, and Ransom is seemingly a direct opponent of the emerging blackmail plot.
At this point in the narrative, Detective Blanc is also the furthest from where we first saw him. Still functioning as something of an antagonist – becoming a figure of threat as he spies Marta and Ransom at the burned-down medical examiner’s office – he has also become increasingly comedic. Whether he is delivering an incredible analogy likening the case to a donut within a donut, unwittingly chauffeuring Marta to a blackmail exchange, or dancing enthusiastically in his car, oblivious to calamity unfolding behind him, Blanc is undermined almost to the point of becoming a parody of a detective.
Almost. Neither Blanc nor Ransom are pushed so far that they cannot make the journey back. Which they must, as the final act of Knives Out brings this pair, and the film itself, full circle. As the story seems to be winding to a defeatist conclusion, Blanc finally looks upon the toxicology report upon which a web of blackmail was spun upon. What he reads turns every assumption since the half-hour mark on its head, fills the hole within the donut within the donut, and revives the whodunnit which Johnson had seemingly left in his wake.
The final act of Knives Out returns us resolutely to the whodunnit genre, revealing the machinations of a murderous plot which has been whirring in the background of the entire film, hidden in plain sight. Few audience-members have continued to attempt to solve the murder – a suicide which played out before our eyes and was left in the wake of a maelstrom of undulating genre and character. Few have continued to suspect that Ransom, who has been brought from a place of blatant villainy through a number of subversions, will be returned to his original form.
But he is, as is Blanc, who delivers the requisite series of whodunnit deductions and explanations, spliced with efficient murder-mystery flashbacks. Every piece falls into place, the central mystery solved a second time, Johnson’s characters undergoing their final evolution on a final note summative of the film as a whole – a note of surprise, catharsis, tragedy and comedy.
— To be continued in our February 2020 issue of Cut Frame Magazine. —
To read more about Sam Gohra’s review, check out our 2nd issue of Cut Frame Magazine.
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